J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Lt. Champion Couldn’t Hold a Candle to Washington

Yesterday I quoted a letter from Capt. William Coit, commander of one of the armed schooners that Gen. George Washington ordered out of Beverly, Plymouth, and Newburyport to try to intercept British supply ships.

In early November Coit’s ship, the Harrison, did just that, capturing ships named the Industry and the Polly. They were headed for Boston, loaded with what the besieged British needed for the winter: vegetables, fish, cheese, butter, cattle, hogs, sheep, forage for horses, and forty cords of firewood.

On 8 Nov 1775, Coit’s lieutenant Henry Champion, Jr. (1751-1818), hurried from Plymouth to Washington’s Cambridge headquarters with news that those two captured ships were safe at Plymouth. The commander-in-chief knew that he should be pleased—other captains hadn’t been so successful, or in some cases even left port yet. But something about the lieutenant and captain’s personal style appears to have rubbed Washington the wrong way. He complained at the end of a letter to his just-departed military secretary, Joseph Reed:

I had just finished my letter when a blundering Lieutenant of the blundering Captain [William] Coit, who had just blundered upon two vessels from Nova Scotia, came in with the account of it, and before I could rescue my letter, without knowing what he did, picked up a candle and sprinkled it with grease; but these are kind of blunders which one can readily excuse. The vessels contain hay, live-stock, poultry, &c., and are now safely moored in Plymouth harbor.
Champion eventually impressed Washington enough that in 1779 he became acting major of the Light Brigade organized to attack Stony Point. The picture above, which comes courtesy of Wikipedia, shows him as a substantial landowner and militia commander in postwar Connecticut.

I’ll be talking about Washington and his splendid little naval war at Longfellow National Historic Site in Cambridge on Saturday, 20 February, at 4:00. This talk is sponsored by the site and the Friends of the Longfellow House. It’s free, but the space is limited, so the site asks folks to R.S.V.P. by calling at 617-876-4491, or through this Eventbrite page I just set up.

On that Saturday and the preceding Friday there will also be guided tours of the House focused on how Washington used it as his headquarters from July 1775 to April 1776. Again, call 617-876-4491 to make reservations. Within those walls Washington met with the men he put in charge of those schooners: Reed, Col. John Glover, muster master general Stephen Moylan, and the ships’ officers. As we can see from this letter, some of those meetings went better than others.


Vince said...

It should be noted, for those who see Washington as a great 'stone face,' that the man had a fine sense of humor, and most often at his own expense. As evidenced by the repeated use of the word 'blunder' in the letter you quote, this is a take on human folly.

J. L. Bell said...

Washington opened up a bit in his early letters to Joseph Reed, like this one, so they let us see the more private personality. I agree that he tended to joke about human folly and hypocrisy; I don’t see Washington mostly targeting himself, but he didn’t exempt himself from those weaknesses.